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Newly shuttered ‘ohana zone’ offers lessons for future tent cities

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    Linda Vandervoort, pictured in December, served as volunteer coordinator for Camp Kikaha. At one point she was in charge of 30 homeless people, many of them with mental health or substance abuse problems.


    Former Washington state resident Amane Marshall cleaned around the entrance to Camp Kikaha, a government-sanctioned Kailua-Kona “ohana zone,” in December.

There are opposite takeaways from this week’s sudden closure of Hawaii’s only homeless, government-sanctioned “ohana zone,” Camp Kikaha in Kailua-Kona.

Brandee Menino — chief executive officer of Hope Services Hawaii Inc., which runs a homeless shelter “26 steps away from Camp Kikaha” — said the eight-month experiment “created chaos.”

“There were fights; there was a stabbing that was never reported,” Menino told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

But Hawaii County’s homeless coordinator, Lance Niimi, said, “To me it was definitely a success. We know in our hearts that we helped them.”

Out of 51 homeless people who went through Camp Kikaha since it opened in August, more than half — 28 people — were kicked out, arrested or left on their own and may be homeless again.

Two were arrested for violations that occurred previously or outside Camp Kikaha, said Linda Vandervoort, who served as the camp’s unpaid volunteer coordinator. “Five were asked to leave because of their obvious behavioral health or substance use disorders. Two were pretty much caught red-handed (for drug use or possession of drug paraphernalia). Seven were kicked out for gross guideline violations, and 12 left voluntarily. Most had been homeless for a very long time and just weren’t ready to go into the emergency shelter.”

At the same time, two Camp Kikaha residents found permanent housing, four moved in with family members, 15 went into the shelter next door and two more are on the shelter’s waiting list, Vandervoort said.

Vandervoort witnessed the immediate aftermath of the stabbing in late November or early December. Two men were arguing, and one of them was wounded in the left arm.

Neither man had been living in Camp Kikaha, and Vandervoort did not report the stabbing because the injured man denied he had been stabbed “and they apologized to each other and made nice to each other,” Vandervoort said. “But I know it was a stabbing. I know it was.”

Ohana zones

The closure of Camp Kikaha on Tuesday came as House leaders gutted Gov. David Ige’s budget request for more than $8 million to continue existing homeless programs and instead spend $30 million for ohana zones across the islands.

The House’s stance goes against the position of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which insist that government-­sanctioned tent cities — re-branded in Hawaii as ohana zones — don’t work and only distract communities by arguing over whose neighborhood should host them.

While not all homeless people turned their lives around at Camp Kikaha, Niimi said it provided a step in between an outlaw homeless encampment and a homeless shelter — and a way for social service agencies to help them.

“You still need something better than the illegal camps we’re dealing with and just sweeping them without an option,” Niimi said.

At Camp Kikaha, residents received weekly “wound care” for injuries that could lead to dangerous staph infections if left untreated, Niimi said. “And we think we made an impact on substance abuse by offering services. We got a lot of support. The number of contacts (with Camp Kikaha’s residents) was phenomenal. But even at the end some of them were resistant. Some of them have severe mental health issues.”

8-month experiment

Like other so-called tent cities across the nation, Camp Kikaha sprang up out of a sense of urgency in August as Hawaii County swept 68 homeless people — many of them mentally ill and drug abusers — from an entrenched encampment at the Old Kona Airport, where there were persistent complaints of drug use and violence.

Camp Kikaha was born about a mile away at the Old Kona Industrial Area on county land using three canopies, a county water spigot and two portable toilets that cost $500 per month to service.

County and state officials were trying to avoid a repeat of the disastrous 1990-1993 tent city experiment in Oahu’s Aala Park, which ended in failure after a night of “wilding” that included an attempted murder and a trail of crime scenes.

An emergency proclamation temporarily exempted Camp Kikaha from zoning, building and fire codes.

“We put up one makeshift shower,” Niimi said. “It was not connected to a sewer. So the wastewater basically went into the ground. Technically you should connect it to the sewer.”

In the end, Niimi estimated that Camp Kikaha cost Hawaii County $46,000 over eight months, not including the first few weeks of salary for Vandervoort to run Camp Kikaha. With no money for her salary, Vandervoort then worked for free.

As originally envisioned, Camp Kikaha started out costing Hawaii County $21,207 per month — or $706 to $848 per month per resident.

At first, Camp Kikaha came with 24-hour security that cost $15,400 per month. But the county had only $60,000 in its entire homeless budget. So security was reduced to the hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. for the first half of November, then cut back to midnight to 4 a.m. for the rest of November.

As of Dec. 1, homeless residents were asked to police themselves.

“I would have a hard time saying they can run it by themselves,” Niimi said. “It’s very hard for self-managed security because they have friends and loyalties. Our experience was we needed to be there. We were fortunate that we had Linda do it on a voluntary basis.”

Originally, like tent cities across the country, Camp Kikaha was supposed to offer a temporary fix for a much larger homeless problem.

“It was supposed to be a short period, two months, then we did extend it up to seven months,” Niimi said.

Growing safety concerns

Fire officials worried about the fire danger of people sleeping on cots placed on top of wooden pallets, all covered by flammable canopies.

“There were growing issues of safety,” Niimi said. “One of the issues was the fire hazard. Then we had an unprecedented amount of rain. The canopies were only going to last six months. It was all part of our learning.”

Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim is now considering new ohana zones somewhere in Hilo and Pahoa in the island’s Puna District, Niimi said.

Next time, Niimi said, more consideration should be given to reinforced structures such as igloo-shaped domes that cost $9,500 each, not including shipping and foundations.

And he said Hawaii’s next ohana zone should be restricted to a ratio of no more than 20 people at a time per each staff member. Initially, Vandervoort was in charge of 30 homeless people, many of them with mental health or substance abuse problems.

“The most important thing is you have to put money into it,” Niimi said. “That’s the thing we learned.”

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